"....The truth is out there."
-- Dr. Jerome Jackson, 2002 (... & Agent Fox Mulder)
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
"All truth passes through 3 stages: First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident."
-- Arthur Schopenhauer
Sunday, February 17, 2008
-- "The Life of the Skies" --
"Birds have always been emblems that shuttled between the natural world and the man-made world, between science and poetry, between earth and sky. But the ivory-bill is even more of an in-between figure --- flying between the world of the living and the world of the dead, between the American wilderness and the modern wasteland, between faith and doubt, survival and extinction. No wonder the bird has taken on a sort of mystical character."I've sometimes proposed that happiness in life is a matter of expectations: if you hold your expectations high you will be thwarted, disappointed, and frustrated along the way, but if you simply keep expectations low, then joy will follow when things turn out much better-than-you-expected!!!
-- Jonathan Rosen from "The Life of the Skies"
So it was with some trepidation this weekend that I snapped up a copy of Jonathan Rosen's new homage to birding, "The Life of the Skies," because, having touted it for months on the Web, sight unseen (but based on his previous essays), I was afraid it might not live up to my expectations.
What a relief!!... It is (for me) as expected --- the richest overview of birding I've seen --- not the science, nor sport, nor even art or history of birding, but richest (I would almost say, delicious) overview of the sheer spirit and joy of birding (and more)!
Early on in the volume, Rosen notes something obvious, that I hadn't really thought much about before: birds are almost the ONLY wild animals most people encounter anymore on a regular basis throughout their lives; we have so exterminated, or removed from our environs, all the others; and of course birds themselves are declining rapidly as well. They are in some sense our single remaining thread to a world long gone. It is a sad thought, and the lingering thought that I think cloaks the entire remainder of the book with poignancy.
Way, way back when Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim At Tinker Creek" came out, Publishers Weekly wrote, "This book of wonder is one of the truly beautiful books of this or any other season... which, on any page, offers a passage one can scarcely wait to share with a friend. It is a triumph." ...Pretty much ditto for Rosen's newest volume.
Moreover, though I knew Rosen had looked for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker at Pearl River several years back, one pleasant surprise was discovering what a prominent role the IBWO would play throughout his current work, at beginning, end, and popping up repeatedly in-between, even when not the topic of focus.
The book is liberally sprinkled with interesting historical facts, stories, lyrical writing, and unpredictable jumps from subject to subject (if you're looking for a straightforward scientific history of American birding, this is not the book for you). A wide-range of figures appear with wonderful narrative (Audubon, Thoreau, Whitman, Burroughs, Theo. Roosevelt, Alfred Russel Wallace, Robert Frost, E.O. Wilson...); even Jewish mysticism arises recurringly out of the prose. Indeed, while many people don't grasp what I mean (in the left-hand blog column) when I talk of woven interests in "birds, science, and mysticism," Rosen clearly does (and there may be more religious-tinged talk here than will suit some readers' tastes.)
One of the most entertaining chapters (out of many) is chapter 10 where the author essentially addresses the age-old question of, can you be a birder and still be manly (my phrasing, not his, and I won't give the answer here). But everyone will have their own favorite chapters (it's hard to choose). There are pages or passages, as in any 300-page volume, that don't seem to carry their weight as well, but I admire Rosen for even daring to cover such eclectic, wide-ranging ground (there is history, poetry, science, theology, meditation, humor, stream-of-consciousness, and oh yeah, birds, here). I would've enjoyed reading more about modern birding, about Roger Tory Peterson and even Pete Dunne, and many of the current activities of birding, but hey, you can't have it all, and that just doesn't appear to be the goal here (although the book does conclude BTW, just as the original Choctawhatchee IBWO announcement is about to be made).
There are probably a couple dozen lines and passages I'd love to share with you here, but better yet, go get your own copy and select your own passages. No guarantees (readers' tastes vary widely I know), but for my money this is the best bird-related volume I've read in a very long time, and certainly the most unconventional bird book I've seen for awhile. So if you're a bird or nature lover, I recommend buying this book. But maybe more importantly, IF you're NOT a bird or nature lover (but enjoy good writing)... BUY this book (...and become one).
And bravo Mr. Rosen for not disappointing.... (now I need to go read it a second time, for all that I missed on the first go-around).
[ One itsy-bitsy technical note: When David Kulivan reported Ivorybills at Pearl River in 1999, the various news stories and books that followed, alternatively spelled his name "Kulivan" and "Kullivan" --- unbelievably, this continued for years back and forth (last year's USF&W Draft Recovery Report has the one "l" spelling). At some point long ago I settled on the "Kulivan" spelling because it seemed the more prevalent from the most authoritative sources. Rosen however, who met Kulivan early-on, consistently uses the "Kullivan" spelling, so henceforth I will use that variation in the future (....unless someone gives me good reason to do otherwise). ]
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